Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A New Role for Professor Warren

When I worked at the Biddle Law Library at the University of Pennsylvania, I served as the liaison librarian to Elizabeth Warren, who was teaching there at the time. She taught Contracts, Bankruptcy, and other commercial law subjects, and was one of the most popular professors at the school. Thanks to her strong communication skills, she had the ability to reach different audiences. Penn students loved her because she was an effective teacher, had a good sense of humor, and was very accessible. I remember her as having a great deal of common sense and little pretentiousness; she was grounded and down to earth. For the women students, Professor Warren was a role model, a woman who had a high-profile career while raising a family. In addition to all this, she is a serious scholar, especially in the area of bankruptcy law and policy. Her books, co-authored with Teresa Sullivan and Jay Westbrook--As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankrupcy and Consumer Credit in America and The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt--were groundbreaking, among the first efforts to bring empirical research techniques to bankruptcy. "Crisscrossing the country, often with a portable photocopier strapped into the airplane seat next to her, Warren visited countless courthouses, where she pored over records and interviewed judges, lawyers, and often the debtors themselves. ... Warren ... paint[ed] a picture of an increasingly vulnerable middle class." Her work has shone a light on the disproportionately harsh effects of debt on women, and has encouraged other scholars to use court records as the raw material of their own research projects.

Professor Warren, who is now on the faculty of Harvard Law School, is a candidate for the Massachusetts Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown. She is the subject of an insightful profile in the current issue of New York Magazine. Dubbing her "the saint with sharp elbows," the profile highlights her trenchant criticism of the deregulation of Wall Street that began in the 1980s and

allowed "the big financial firms, the titans of Wall Street," to "start selling ever more dangerous mortgages, ever more dangerous credit cards, ever more dangerous car loans, which they then repackaged and sold again, producing, in addition to huge profits and bonuses, huge risk. After the market took a downturn, all that risk that's been built into the system starts to come home, somebody's got to pay, and those same CEOs on Wall Street basically turn around the American people and say, 'Whoa, there's a real problem here, and you better bail us out or we're all gonna die.' And so we did, that was TARP. And now we're about to write the last chapter in this narrative."

A passionate advocate on behalf of America's embattled middle class, Professor Warren was chosen by President Obama to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was her brainchild, and most people assumed she would eventually be nominated to head it. President Obama chose not to appoint her, however, knowing that the confirmation process would be difficult if not impossible. It is worth noting that Obama's ultimate choice, Richard Cordray, is facing stiff opposition from the Republicans in Congress and may never be confirmed. The profile points out that Professor Warren has moved on from the disappointment and disillusionment she must have felt about not being nominated to head the CFPB, and is now hoping to channel her energy and intellect into "rebuilding America's middle class."

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